The Grammarphobia Blog

What the dickens!

Q: When Pat was on WNYC, a caller suggested Charles Dickens as the source of “What the dickens!” Actually, it was Shakespeare. Here’s the exchange, from The Merry Wives of Windsor. “Mrs. Page: I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah? Robin: Sir John Falstaff.”

A. Well (as Falstaff once said … we think), whaddya know!

OK, Shakespeare used the phrase more than two centuries before Charles Dickens saw the light of day. But the Bard wasn’t necessarily the first person to use it.

So who the dickens is responsible for all the exclamations that feature the word “dickens”?

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “dickens” used in this sense is a euphemism for “devil,” influenced by the name Dickens.

So Charles wasn’t responsible for the usage, but the surname “Dickens” may have had something to do with it.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression “the dickens!” isan interjectional exclamation expressing astonishment, impatience, irritation, etc.; usually with interrogative words, as what, where, how, why, etc.”

The OED labels it as a slang or colloquial term meaning “the deuce, the devil.” It says the exclamation is “apparently substituted for ‘devil,’ as having the same initial sound.”

But the dictionary says there’s no evidence to support suggestions that “dickens” evolved from the term “devilkin” or “deilkin” (little devil).

The OED notes, though, that “Dickin” or “Dickon,” a diminutive of Dick, “was in use long before the earliest known instance of this, and Dickens as a surname was probably also already in existence.”

So who is the first person to use a “dickens” expression in print?

The earliest citation in the OED is from Thomas Heywood’s play King Edward IV (1st Part), published in 1599: “What the dickens is it loue that makes ye prate to me so fondly.”

Did Heywood get there before Shakespeare? Maybe, maybe not. We don’t know for sure.

Merry Wives was written sometime before Shakespeare died in 1616, but the earliest written version of the play now available is from the First Folio, published in 1623.

Nevertheless, some scholars think it was written in the late 1590s, so perhaps “dickens” is another “first” for Shakespeare.

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